Robert Keyt embraces Sebastian Mackleer, 16, under the Bimini top of his cockpit at Burdines. Keyt was able to save his own boat, but the Mackleer family lost their primary residence when it sank. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

Robert “Bob” Keyt almost said goodbye to The Last Farewell. His 38-foot Downeaster was docked at Pancho’s Marina and Fuel Dock during Hurricane Irma. During the storm, the boat came loose from its slip with Keyt aboard.

“I got to be honest; at one point I abandoned ship,” he said Sept. 25 from a picnic table harborside. “I climbed into the freight container at Pancho’s. After about 15 minutes I realized two things. The wind was cold and the water was warm.”

So Keyt, a 57-year-old former merchant marine and contractor, swam around until he “got a hold of her.” He ended up tying the boat on the other side of the canal, closest to Burdines Waterfront Restaurant. Of the 17 boats docked at Pancho’s, four went under or suffered catastrophic damage. He pointed to one sailboat that had already been raised, although it’s probably a total loss.

Robert Keyt embraces Sebastian Mackleer, 16, under the Bimini top of his cockpit at Burdines. Keyt was able to save his own boat, but the Mackleer family lost their primary residence when it sank. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

“The piling ate a hole in it,” he said. “It’s like it went through a grinder.”

Keyt and one other man stayed in the boats on either side of the canal. Since the storm passed, he’s been doing his best to help his fellow boat owners. It’s the way he was raised, he said, learning the etiquette of the sea on Chesapeake Bay. “You pitch in,” he said, “because next time it might be you.” (Keyt has also taken in a father and son whose sailboat sank courtesy of Hurricane Irma.)

Keyt said his decision to stay was “probably crazy.” But the boat is both his home and retirement investment. It’s not his first rodeo either — he’s weathered four hurricanes, one at sea. During the storm, he experienced whiteout conditions from the blinding rain and wind. “Even the water in this small basin looked like whipped cream. It was perfectly white,” he said. The storm surge went about three feet above the dock, he said.

Keeping the boat at a slip during a hurricane, by the way, isn’t the recommended strategy. Boats are usually safer on “the hook” or a strong mooring ball and away from pilings and docks it might smash against. It is Hurricane Irma’s insult on top of injury to have this bit of logic refuted, leaving mariners — many who are now boatless — even more unsure than before.

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